I was so ready to love this book. Has a plot ever been written more tailor-made for my personal enjoyment? A village with mysterious history is operated by a group of strictly religious women called Sisters, who make the rules for everything from marriages and births to punishments and deaths. Only one girl thinks to question their authority, daring to love her heart’s desire and aching to see what lies beyond the fences that surround the village. Of course, one thing for certain exists beyond the fences: zombies, people who contracted an infection that killed them, then brought them back to a hellish sort of shadow-existence. These zombies stink of death and moan with their need to consume the flesh of the living.
Yes, yes, and yes!! I got my hands on this book and cleared my reading agenda for a couple of days. I was ready to be gripped and pulled in to the story. But, I wasn’t. I kept waiting for the story to step it up. Plenty of things happened: the village is breached by the undead, the main character Mary escapes down a mysterious path with a few survivors. But, I kept having the feeling that the real story had more to do with what had happened before. How did the Sisters establish control of the village? Why did they tell the villagers that they were alone in the world? Why did they mercilessly destroy evidence of human life outside the fences?
Ryan hints at these questions, and more. The hints got tiresome, as did Mary’s constant warring with herself and wondering what to do. The writing felt redundant, almost like its sole purpose was to introduce the concepts and hook the reader for the sequel. In fact, it read like a too-long preview for the second book.
I was struggling to articulate my feelings about this to my sister. I kept saying, “She has a story to tell, but she’s saving it… She just needs to put it out there and write THE story.” Then, I read an article by NY Times film critic A.O. Scott about movie sequels. Scott writes, “…such forestalling and foreshadowing was annoying, as if we were being conned into future ticket purchases rather than given our money’s worth.” I realized that this was precisely the issue. I’ve been feeling this way about books – yes, and movies and tv shows, too – that I just want my money’s worth. I don’t mean that I want to put an actual dollar amount on my experience, but I want the creators to honor the contract between writer and reader (or viewer). I settle in for the story; I’m ready to be entertained. To then be given a story that is basically nothing more than hints and questions is like the ultimate, most aggravating, bait-and-switch.
It reminds me of a quote from Annie Dillard that I used to have on my classroom wall when I was teaching writing to fifth graders. Dillard says:
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.
It’s a lesson for any writer to keep in mind. Don’t squirrel away the good stuff, saving it for later or holding it like a carrot so your audience will follow along. They won’t (or, I won’t, anyway). But, tell me a good story and, sister, I’m yours for life. Or, should I say, I’m yours for undead.